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Mississippi, Still Bearing Its Southern Cross

By Kevin Merida
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 26, 2008

OXFORD, Miss.

Mississippi has been chasing away ghosts for years, trying to rid itself of a past that keeps haunting the present. But the ghosts just won't leave Mississippi alone.

University of Mississippi Chancellor Robert Khayat thought he could perform a little exorcism of his own by bringing the first presidential debate of the general election campaign to his lush campus here, an oasis of culture and refinement in a state often framed by its problems. And its history: Emmett Till, Medgar Evers, Schwerner, Goodman and Chaney, the longevity of the Ku Klux Klan, the Confederate battle cross, which two-thirds of the state's voters chose to keep as part of the state flag.

First and foremost, Khayat said, hosting a presidential debate would be a signature experience for Ole Miss's 17,000 students. But there was something else the debate and its international exposure could provide, Khayat thought, and that was "to lift our own self-perception. You know how Mississippi is kicked around. Every time some list comes out that nobody wants to be on, we're up at the top."

Poverty, teen pregnancy, obesity, infant mortality, illiteracy: Mississippi is among the nation's leaders. "After a while, we become defensive," said Khayat, an alum who played football for Ole Miss and later for the Washington Redskins. "I would call it a Mississippi inferiority complex."

And so it was, just as Oxford was polishing the state's image, that along came Sen. John McCain to deliver another blow to the Mississippi psyche. On Wednesday he suspended his campaign and called for the postponement of today's scheduled debate in order to address the urgency of the nation's financial crisis. Back in Washington yesterday, McCain joined his Democratic rival, Sen. Barack Obama, and other congressional leaders at a meeting President Bush convened to discuss a compromise government bailout, which rapidly unraveled. Obama declared he would be in Oxford, while McCain left unclear whether he'd show up.

Meanwhile, at Ole Miss, plans moved forward to host the face-off. While Mississippi remains divided about many things politically, there seemed to be no partisan divisions about the debate. Haley Barbour, the state's governor and a powerful Republican well practiced in the ways of Washington, said yesterday that he expected the debate to take place as planned. Clarke Reed, the veteran state Republican strategist, was even more forceful. "I frankly think McCain is making a mistake," Reed said. "I don't think it looks good."

Hosting a debate is a huge undertaking for any institution, but Ole Miss seems to have come to it with special zeal. "I've never seen more excitement about a debate," said Reed, who has seen many of them. "The campus looks like it's set up for a Soviet parade."

The Grove, Ole Miss's famous football tailgating grounds, has been set up as a kind of all-day debate festival, with food and music under the tall oaks. Those without tickets to get inside the Gertrude Castellow Ford Center -- and that's most everybody -- can watch the debate in the Grove and get their party on.

"Welcome to Oxford" banners hang on light fixtures and poles along University Avenue. Ole Miss seems to have amassed an army of promoters -- 400 staff, faculty and student volunteers -- and most are wearing debate name badges or engraved debate polo shirts provided by Nike. The hospitality brigade is not limited to campus. Some 100 alumni greeters have been sent to the state's airports to welcome those who have flown in for the occasion, which was expected to include some 3,000 members of the media.

Ole Miss even has the corners of the downtown square covered. The other evening, three retirees from the Jackson area -- Lois Pauls, Charlene Bullock and Fay Ray -- sat in their folding chairs, all wearing white blouses, and fielded questions from passersby. Restaurants? Shops? Transportation? They were there to help.

Not everyone, though, has been bowled over. Hoopla is one thing, but commerce is another. John Welty, owner of Mississippi Madness, a store in town that sells pottery and other Mississippi products, was expecting a bigger boon. That's what he had been led to believe. "My store has been slower than normal," said Welty, who is on the local tourism board.

Just landing the debate took "work, work, work," said Khayat. He credits veteran journalists Tom Oliphant and Curtis Wilkie (an Ole Miss faculty member) with planting the idea more than four years ago. Khayat knew the university had a good space for a debate, with its performing arts center, and once he got a commitment of $1.5 million from the Robert M. Hearin Foundation, Khayat felt the university had enough financial backing to submit a proposal. In November 2007 the university found out it had been selected, and Khayat started calling companies for additional support, 14 in all.

The total price tag for the debate, he estimates, is $5.5 million.

"It's an honor that they chose Ole Miss," said Tyler Bigham, a senior music major and member of the Pride of the South university band. "There's been a lot of controversial past. There are still some bad seeds. But there are a lot of good people here."

Ole Miss has its own sordid past that it has had to reckon with. In 1962, James Meredith became the first black student to enroll at the University of Mississippi, triggering violent riots that required federal troops and left two dead and many injured. Donald Cole remembers watching the scene on television in his Jackson home as a young boy and seeing the angry faces and thinking he would never go to Ole Miss.

But six years after Meredith enrolled, Cole did, too. He had visited schools around the state and fell in love with Ole Miss. But once there, he realized that integration still had a long way to go. Vast pockets of the campus, students and faculty alike, had no experience dealing with black students, who numbered little more than 100. "It wasn't a comfortable place," he says. There were confrontations, and he recalls young white female students shaking miniature Rebel flags at him as he went by.

So black students decided that they would take their grievances to university administrators. "We somehow thought that black professors ought to be somewhere on campus, that black administrators ought to be somewhere, that black athletes ought to play on some team," Cole said.

After asking, then demanding, they decided to protest, an action that resulted in eight of them being expelled, including Cole. He would end up graduating at Tougaloo College in the state, going off to get his master's degree elsewhere and returning to Ole Miss for a doctorate. In 1993, Cole returned to Ole Miss as an administrator and faculty member, teaching mathematics.

Today, he has an office near Khayat's, serving as assistant provost and assistant to the chancellor for multicultural affairs.

"If we look back on the racial history of the institution, it would say that my existence here is an impossibility," said Cole. "But I am here. And that means something has happened to make my presence possible. Some change has taken place."

Certainly not all, he said. But hosting the debate at least provides an opportunity. "We get a chance to redefine people's preconceived notions," Cole said. "I know that there are many who have not visited us, even in their minds, since the '60s."

Mississippi can never shake that decade for good. There is still white flight in some communities, and some of the private academies created to avoid integration still exist. But more kids are going to school with each other, and that interaction is changing the notions of what is possible. Mississippi is at the top of a lot of bad categories, but it also ranks consistently at the top in charitable giving -- an indication, some residents say, of the warm hearts of Mississippians.

"Mississippi is not fixed," said Richard Howorth, Oxford's mayor and owner of the renowned independent bookstore Square Books. "No place in America is in that regard. But I think we've come farther than most places."

The state now has more black elected officials than any state in the country, including more than a quarter of the state legislators.. But there has yet to be an African American to win statewide office, and those who have tried have been victims of race-baiting politics, according to some black politicians. It is quite the irony that while Barack Obama carried Mississippi in the Democratic primary -- and some Democrats believe he can be competitive, if not win, in the general election -- black politicians in the state have had a difficult time winning white votes.

One of those who have succeeded is state Sen. Eric Powell, who represents a district that is 92 percent white. He says Obama has provided a road map for the politics of the future. "He's got white and black young people coming together," said Powell. "They've learned how to live with one another and accept one another's cultures."

They are too young to have lived through the shameful past, and so the ghosts of Mississippi don't bother with them.

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